“What the hell is this supposed to be?”
Fury is bent over a document that’s spread across his desk, takes his time to respond despite the way Natasha’s pushed her way into his office, and despite the file she’s slapped down a few inches away from his right hand.
When he does finally look up and acknowledge her, it’s with one of his patented Unimpressed looks. “Your next assignment, Romanoff. I don’t seem to recall you having trouble reading briefings in the past.”
“I read it,” says Natasha, jutting her chin out at the offending manila folder. “I just don’t see what it has to do with me.”
“We can get you an interpreter,” Fury says dryly, “if you think language is the problem.”
She crosses her arms. “You want me to teach.”
He nods. “That’s the idea. Maybe you did understand the document after all?”
“You want me to teach seduction,” Natasha says disgustedly.
Fury sighs. “The official name of the course is Interpersonal Espionage Techniques.”
“Seduction,” she insists. “I’m a spy, not a school mistress.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Interesting choice of words there.”
Natasha rolls her eyes. “Why do I have to do this? Is this another test? Six months of proving my loyalty still not enough?”
“Not a test,” says Fury. “A responsibility. You recently got a promotion, did you not? All Level 3 agents are required to teach a continuing education course at HQ. Including you.”
“And you expect me to teach seduction in particular,” she insists. “Everyone already thinks of me as the girl who trades sex for information.”
“I expect,” he says firmly, sliding the folder back across the desk toward her, “that you are the person best-suited to teach people that your particular brand of espionage is more than that.”
The lecture hall is bigger than what Natasha’s been expecting, and open in a way that makes her feel oddly vulnerable. Then again, she supposes that’s what comes of having your entire education in a bunker. It’s not as if she’s unaware that some of her perspectives are a bit odd, but it still strikes her as surprising when things at S.H.I.E.L.D. feel unfamiliar. She’s been trained, after all, to feel at home anywhere necessary.
She hasn’t bothered to investigate the space ahead of time, so the room is already full of her new students the first time she sees it. The seats are arranged in tiered, semi-circular rows, most of which are occupied. Most of the agents are young, vaguely her own age, but others are clearly older, even a few who are noticeably gray around the edges.
Natasha pauses at the front of the classroom, surveying the group further as the projector she’s going to use warms up. There’s a young man sitting in the front row who’s wearing a t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off and leering at her as though he’s trying very hard to develop x-ray vision. The woman behind him and to the left has more impressive muscles, and visible bruises below the cuffs of her loose gym shorts. Beside her is a man who is so tall and thin he looks as though he might break in half in a fight, folded into the lecture chair as though he might have telescoping joints in his limbs. And there, in the back corner, is Barton. He’s wearing a S.H.I.E.L.D. hoodie, slouched down in the seat like he might be a student in any American college classroom. She eyes him for a moment, but he doesn’t meet her gaze.
“Lesson one,” says Natasha, watching as a hush falls over the room, as people straighten up in their seats a bit. “Anyone who thinks they’re here to sleep with me is going to be sorely disappointed. Emphasis on sorely.”
“What are you doing here?” Natasha demands, when she catches sight of Barton, lurking in the hallway outside her classroom, a good ten minutes after the last of the other students filtered out of the building.
“Here?” he asks, hooking his thumb vaguely in the direction of their surroundings. “Waiting for you. Wanna go spar?”
She shakes her head, ignoring his second question in favor of the first. “Not literally here.” She gestures back toward the lecture hall itself. “Here. In my class. Fury send you to make sure I turned up after all?”
“Ohhh,” he answers, feigning sudden understanding. “Class. I thought that was where people went when they wanted to learn things?”
Natasha crosses her arms. “So you’re here to learn things.” It’s more of a challenge than a question.
He nods. “Yes. Interpersonal Espionage? I could use the refresher. Besides, you’re kind of famous for this stuff.”
“Flattery isn’t going to work,” she says dryly. “Did you miss the entire point of Lesson One?”
“Nope,” he says glibly. “But I don’t want to sleep with you. I just want to learn from the best.”
She studies him for a moment, then decides to table the interrogation for the moment. If he doesn’t come back, it will be a moot point -- she’ll dismiss today’s appearance as somewhat justifiable curiosity. And if he does, well, then she’ll have more time to figure out his actual motives.
“You know what?” she asks. “I think I just changed my mind. Let’s go to the gym. Beating you up sounds excellent right now.”
“Lesson two,” says Natasha, surveying the room as she takes her place in front of it. She allows her voice to call the class to attention, not bothering with any sort of preface or greeting. “Today we’re going to talk about how to look the part.”
It’s been a week since her last lecture -- enough time, in fact, to take a trip overseas and bust an underground hacking ring disguised as the latest in videogame tech -- but very little has changed about her class. Most of her students are even occupying the same seats, right down to Barton failing to look inconspicuous in the back of the room. The brassy young woman is still covered in bruises, though the colors and patterns have changed somewhat. In the front of the room, the kid with the gun show is sporting a fresh tank top, just as ripped and just as excessive.
Natasha lets the tension build for a moment as she looks all of them over, planning out a strategy for how she wants to orchestrate the lesson. Teaching is not a thing she’s ever done before, but that label could be applied to most of the skills she’s been called upon to use on assignments. At least here, she thinks, nobody’s life is at stake. At least not in the short-term.
“You,” she says to a man seated in the middle of the room, dressed smartly in a button-down shirt and freshly-ironed dress slacks, complete with a tie. “Tell the class what you were thinking when you got dressed this morning.”
The man clears his throat, looking surprised to suddenly find himself the center of attention. “Well. I had a meeting with my SO this morning. Performance review.”
“So you wanted to look good,” says Natasha, watching as he nods. “Maybe like a man who deserves a promotion.”
He shrugs. “Mostly just like a man who deserves to keep his job.”
She raises an eyebrow. “I was going to say your outfit today was suggestive of high standards, but you just completely spoiled the illusion.”
A chuckle runs through the room as the young man gives her his best sheepish look, and Natasha thinks she might feel a bit of sympathy, had he not just learned a valuable lesson.
She turns her attention to the man still projecting false bravado from the front row, who she’s mentally dubbed Gun Show. “How about you? What kind of message are you trying to send?”
He looks down at himself, then back up at her, looking predictably impressed with himself. “I work on my body.”
“Congratulations,” says Natasha. “You’re a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Working on your body is literally a part of your job.”
Gun Show gives her a disdainful look. “I’m good at my job.”
“Maybe,” says Natasha, “if your assignment was a boxing gym, or a personal training gig. In the classroom, or in a briefing? You look like an egotistical fool.”
This time the ensuing laugh is louder, and Gun Show looks suitably indignant.
“Maybe to you,” he retorts.
She rests a hand on her hip and gives him her best unimpressed look. “Which is exactly the point, isn’t it?”
This time he’s wise enough to remain quiet, just shaking his head in disgust and regarding her with an expression that says he’s going to give her plenty more opportunities for a verbal smackdown.
Natasha surveys the class again, then makes a decision as her gaze comes to rest on Barton, slouched over in the back corner, once again looking as though he’s trying to disappear inside of his hoodie. He’s the polar opposite of Gun Show, she thinks, all the power of his body concealed by an outfit that makes him look like any average guy on the street.
“What about you?” she asks, knowing that he has to be aware of her attention on him, and opting not to use his name. He’s chosen to fly under the radar here for some reason, and she still wants to see what it is.
Barton sits up, still not fully upright in his chair. “Me? I’m a student. Who doesn’t really want to be here. I think it’s silly that S.H.I.E.L.D. requires me to sit through lectures when I signed up to go shoot things in the field.” He delivers the speech in the perfectly flat deadpan she’s coming to know as his sense of humor, and for a moment Natasha almost loses her composure.
“Good,” she says, after a moment. “If that was your goal, then you’ve done an excellent job. And that’s the point of today’s lesson. It’s not about a right or wrong way to dress, it’s about knowing the part you need to play, and calibrating your image for that. So, what role am I playing today?”
“The expert,” volunteers the young woman with the battle wounds, speaking up for the first time.
Natasha nods, but doesn’t get a chance to say anything before Barton cuts in.
“Who might want to murder some of us a little.”
This time she does allow herself a smile, small and a bit deadly.
“I need a volunteer,” says Natasha, though she’s fairly certain she can already predict who the first one will be.
As she’s anticipated, Gun Show raises his hand, making a show of flexing his bicep, which is still conspicuously exposed, despite the previous week’s lesson.
She pauses for a moment, letting him feel the weight of her judgment resting on him. “Interesting. It’s almost like you wanted to point out how spectacularly you’ve failed to follow last week’s feedback.”
“Or,” he says brazenly, “maybe I just don’t agree with it. Things are different here in America, you know?”
“Right,” she says dryly. “So, you’ve just volunteered. Without knowing what you were volunteering for, by the way. Not a situation you ever want to put yourself in when you’re in the field.”
“Think I’m smart enough to know the difference between the classroom and the field,” says Gun Show.
“Okay,” says Natasha. “Well, get up. Today is all about body language.”
She takes a few steps closer to the center of the room, watches as he stands up and immediately crosses his arms, the picture of stubborn defensiveness.
“What do you think you’re demonstrating to me right now?” she asks, taking a long moment to look him up and down.
Gun Show shrugs. “I’m ready for instructions.”
“Yet your entire posture is closed,” says Natasha. “Like you’re expecting me to attack you. Which, fair enough. I’ve been told I am very scary.”
He snickers at that, not nicely, but apparently has enough decent judgment to avoid the temptation to comment further.
“Okay,” she continues, half-turning toward the class, as though she’s on a stage, swallowing down the ghost of a memory that tries to rise at the sensation. “You’re going to approach me as if we were in a public place, maybe a bar. Do your best to draw me in, like you might on a first meeting with a mark. It’s everyone else’s job to observe and critique when we’re finished.”
Gun Show nods once, then takes three steps into her personal space and thrusts out his right hand, all but hitting her in the chest. “Hello, gorgeous. I’m Alex.” He grins, all teeth.
Natasha steps back, putting over an arm’s length between them again, and gives him her best look of disdain. “That’s nice for you.”
Alex -- which is something of an anticlimactic name, comparatively -- blinks, then bristles, evident in the line of his shoulders and the set of his jaw. He keeps the smile plastered on, though, predatory as ever. “It is, actually. And you are?”
She quirks an eyebrow incredulously. “Not interested.”
He pauses, obviously thrown, confirming her suspicion that he’s the kind of guy who walks into a room expecting everyone around to cater to his needs and expectations. “Aw, come on, that’s not fair.”
“Fair?” Natasha prompts, still perfectly calm, if somewhat disinterested.
“You’ve had it out for me this whole time,” says Alex, crossing his arms again. “You know what they say about you and men?”
“No,” she says sweetly, welcoming him into the trap he’s just set for himself. “I don’t. Please enlighten me.”
The realization of his mistake is visible on his face, and for a moment he can only gape at her in horror before he manages to close his mouth and speak. “You um. Have high standards.”
She eyes him for a moment longer before deciding to let him off the hook. “Okay. Demonstration over. Time for critique. Who wants to comment?”
“His first mistake,” says the woman who is covered in a whole new array of bruises this week, “was assuming that he would be welcome in your space. He treated you like a casual hookup at a bar, probably because that’s his default in meeting people. He was way too forward, and then he got mad when you rejected him instead of adjusting course.”
Natasha nods. “You can’t assume that your target is going to cater to you. Or even be interested in you, really. Best case scenario, they are. But most scenarios aren’t the best. Your body language needs to draw them in, no matter what. Find that way to connect.” She pauses, then decides that one demonstration isn’t enough. “You want to try?”
The woman gets up carefully, moves to stand beside Natasha in front of the room, mirroring her stance for a moment before leaning in ever so slightly, conspiratorially. “Hey, that guy was obnoxious, right? Want to go out back and fight him together?”
When Natasha gets back to her cubicle after class, she finds Barton seated in her chair, tipped dangerously far backward, his feet resting on the edge of the desk.
She pauses a few feet away, blinking at him, taken aback. Not that she’s found anything about his behavior in the past couple of weeks predictable. Or ever, really. If she’s honest with herself, his ability to surprise her is a large part of what she likes about him.
“Interesting,” she says after a moment. “I know you were there for the lesson today. What kind of body language are you trying to convey?”
“I’m here to do my homework,” he answers, taking his feet down so he can swivel the chair around to face her, his arms crossed behind his head. “What do you think?”
“You look very relaxed,” says Natasha, walking around the chair to rest her hip against the edge of the desk.
He nods. “Exactly. Guess I’m doing a good job. I did have a good lesson earlier.”
She sighs, feeling a twinge of irritation. “Did you come here just to mock me?”
He shakes his head. “On the contrary. I came to tell you that it’s going well. Definitely the most engaging class I’ve ever been in.”
“You like watching arrogant idiots get humiliated?” she asks, still skeptical.
“Yes, actually.” He grins. “You’re good at this, Nat. Stop deflecting.”
“Yes,” she says flatly. “I’m a great role model. Everyone should aspire to be S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most wanted.”
“Hey,” says Barton, getting to his feet. “Me, enjoying school? I’ll have you know that’s very high praise.”
“Great,” says Natasha, still wondering what angle he’s working here. “Did you want a prize?”
“No.” He shrugs. “But if you’re offering, how about you come with me to lunch?”
“Pair up,” says Natasha, not even bothering to start in the front of the classroom or turn the projector on. Today is all about practical action, not lecture, and she hopes her own momentum might bolster her students’ motivation.
She watches as people around the room shift to find their partners, mostly just turning to one side or the other, but actually changing seats in a few cases. Everyone looks slightly perturbed by the fact that they’re beginning the day with legitimate effort, rather than passive listening, and she stifles a comment about the fact that they’re supposed to be S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, not Stereotypical American College Students. It’s not as though she’s ever actually been to Stereotypical American College, after all.
“Okay,” she says, when the room’s gone quiet again, and people have more or less ceased their movement. “Today we’re talking about vulnerability. Not just how to make someone else vulnerable, although of course that’s what your job really is anytime you’re working with a mark. The thing is, it’s easy to make someone vulnerable through a show of force, but most of the time, that’s not the most subtle or effective way to do it. Anyone want to tell me other ways you could accomplish that goal?”
“Sex, I’m guessing?” says Alex, apparently having done absolutely nothing to re-evaluate his bravado after the past few lessons. “That is the point of this course, right? We finally gonna get around to that part one of these days?”
“The name of the course is Interpersonal Espionage,” Natasha says curtly. “Shockingly, there’s more to interpersonal interactions than sex or romance. Now, anyone else want to chime in on how to make a mark vulnerable?”
“Blackmail,” suggests Pat, the woman who is perpetually covered in bruises.
Natasha nods. “Yes, that certainly would accomplish the goal of vulnerability, provided you had the kind of information to pull it off effectively. But often you don’t have that information ahead of time. Getting it often involves a sort of voluntary vulnerability, or a vulnerability that you manipulate. Anyone know how you do that?”
“Grovel,” says Barton, from the back of the room. He makes eye contact with her, waggling his eyebrows almost imperceptibly.
Natasha gives him a look. “You want to come up and demonstrate?”
He leans back in his seat. “Nah, I’m good. I want to hear what you’re going to teach us.”
She sighs. “Flattery was also not the answer I was looking for. Although it can be an effective strategy when used skillfully.” She watches the class for a moment, then decides this part of the discussion is over. “Humans are wired to reciprocate vulnerability, however foolish that might seem. When we feel a connection to another person in conversation, and they volunteer something a little bit personal, a little bit uncomfortable for them, we feel an instinct to do the same. You can exploit that, with a strategic use of your own vulnerability. Decide what you can share about yourself, in the interest of getting the other person to open up to you.”
Kyle, the tall, thin man who sits near Pat, raises his hand tentatively. “Does it have to be true? Why not just lie in a way that draws people in?”
“Good question.” Natasha shifts in the front of the room, turning slightly to face him more directly. “You could. It would probably work, at least in some cases. But truth is a powerful thing. A little bit of truth, used wisely, is one of the most powerful tools you can have in espionage. So that’s what I want you to practice today. Get with your partner. You’re going to talk to them for ten minutes. Just talk. Decide what it is that you want to share. What you’re willing to share. They’ll have to do the same. At the end of the exercise, each if you is going to tell the class what you learned about your partner, how they reacted, and how it felt to share a bit of yourself.”
“Is that how you do it?”
Natasha jumps, looking up from the report she’s been reading at her desk to find Barton standing beside her. There was a time -- not so long ago -- when nobody would have been able to surprise her, when she would have been thoroughly alarmed at her own complacence if this had happened. But the truth is, it’s not worthwhile to be on her guard all the time here, not necessary at S.H.I.E.L.D. either.
“Do what?” she asks, putting down the tablet she’s holding and swiveling her chair to face him. He’s taken his hoodie off, no longer looks like the student he was scarcely half an hour before, and it strikes her again how he’s playing a role too, more of a chameleon than she’s ever given him credit for.
“Get people to trust you.” He steals an empty chair from the cubicle next to hers and sits in it backwards, chin resting on the back, apparently unconcerned about its real owner having a use for it. “That exercise we did today. That was -- I mean, I’m not new to field work, you know? Sometimes I’m even assigned the one-on-one with the mark. But I’d never considered using truth as a weapon like that.”
“Not a weapon,” says Natasha. “A tool.”
She’s needling him, being intentionally contrary, in a way, but all he does is nod. “A tool. Fair enough.”
Natasha studies him, not entirely sure how to respond to that. He’s being genuine, she thinks, though her instincts still want to tell her that there’s no way he isn’t working some sort of angle with this whole thing. And she doesn’t like people having agendas that she can’t understand or identify.
“Do you think that’s what I do?” she counters, watching his reaction.
He nods once, thoughtfully. “Some. I mean, you’re much too sophisticated to just use one technique all the time. But I do think I’ve seen you use truth as part of your arsenal. The night I brought you in, you told me that you weren’t sure who you were. I think that was true. Or at least you believed it was.”
She meets his eyes, holds the weight of his gaze for a moment. “I did. And what did you tell me?”
He smiles, almost imperceptibly. “That I thought S.H.I.E.L.D. could help you answer that question. That it did for me.”
She nods. “We all deal in truth and vulnerability. We just aren’t intentional about it most of the time. Taking that control is one of the most powerful things you can do, and one of the most dangerous.”
He raises an eyebrow. “You using it on me right now?”
Natasha snorts, softly. “Maybe a little.”
He grins. “Well guess what? I’m okay with that.”
It’s the worst possible morning to be teaching a lesson on patience.
They’ve spent the past few days traipsing through the swamp on an assignment, and last night’s debriefing when they’d finally returned left her with a generous two and a half hours to sleep before coming back in for the day. To make matters even more miserable, she’s covered in bites from flies that have somehow managed to find every inch of exposed flesh, and sore from a hand-to-hand tussle that never should have happened, had they not been sold out by one of their illustrious informants.
Truth be told, she’s considered simply canceling her class, or going on strike and refusing to come in. But she knows better than to push the fragile trust she’s begun to establish with S.H.I.E.L.D. over the past few months, and her pride is too strong besides. Instead she’s chosen to come in early, because if there’s one thing she learned from her ballet training, it’s the value of having time to center herself before any sort of performance.
Someone’s already turned the lights on when she arrives at the lecture hall, but that isn’t terribly surprising. It’s the sort of space that’s all but perpetually in use, that never seems to fully shut down for the night. She doesn’t look around the room as she steps inside, more focused on the heavy bag she’s carrying and the way that it’s digging into her shoulder, sitting on top of a particularly nasty bruise. She keeps up the momentum of her walking pace until she reaches the table at the front of the hall and deposits the bag onto it, then pauses when the podium catches her attention.
There’s a bottle of ibuprofen sitting on it, along with a bottle of calamine lotion, and a large cup of tea from the good cafe around the corner. Natasha glances up, reflexively, and is surprised to find Barton seated in the back corner of the room, looking every bit as exhausted as she feels.
“What’s this?” she asks, cocking her head toward the things on the podium.
He gestures toward the impressively-large cup of coffee that’s sitting on the desk in front of him. “Backup. I figured we could both use some.”
She eyes him for a moment, then picks up the tea and takes a sip. It’s prepared exactly the way that she likes it, with a double-strength ratio of black tea to water, sweetened with just a hint of brown sugar. She can’t deny that he’s been paying attention to her preferences, and has gone out of his way to meet them, whatever game he’s playing here.
“I wasn’t expecting you to be in class today,” she admits, opening the ibuprofen and downing four pills with another swallow of tea.
“You’re here,” he points out. “In this room, you’re the teacher, but we’re still partners.”
She sighs, decides it’s not worth hiding from him, or trying to push too much. “Not sure you’re going to want to be my partner today. I’m pretty sure I’m about to teach the worst lesson of my career.”
“Well,” he says, breaking off to stifle a yawn with another large swig of coffee, “I’d certainly understand that. But I’d bet that your worst lesson is still a master class on this particular subject.”
Natasha wrinkles her nose at him, and moves to unpack the bag of supplies she’s brought before her students begin to arrive. “Is there a reason you’re so hellbent on flattering me?”
“Not flattery,” he counters, sitting up to watch what she’s doing. “Honesty. There a reason you don’t like being complimented?”
She pauses again, surprised, then considers. “I don’t trust compliments. They’re dangerous. Accepting one makes you vulnerable in its own way. Actually, maybe that should be a lesson one of these days.”
An emotion she can’t quite read crosses his face for an instant, but then he lifts his coffee cup again, takes a sip, and it’s gone. “Fair enough. What are we learning today?”
“Today,” says Natasha, as she begins to distribute supplies around the room, “we’re learning about patience. And all of you are going to build towers of cards.”
Barton grins, suddenly looking as though he hasn’t been up all night, flying halfway around the world. “Now that is a thing I’m good at.”
He finds her in the mess hall, two days later, as she’s reading a briefing memo while distractedly eating a salad. The bruises from their last mission have started to fade, but the sense of exhaustion is still there, along with the remnants of the damn fly bites.
At least this time, Barton doesn’t sneak up, makes plenty of noise with the chair as he pulls it out and flips it around, sitting backward again so that he’s leaning over the surface of the table, one hand drawing a distracted pattern on the top of it.
Natasha puts her fork down and raises an eyebrow. “Do you have something against sitting normally?”
He shrugs. “I sit all day. Maybe I just like being unpredictable.”
“Where’s your food?” she asks, gesturing to her own plate, and the general lunch crowd around both of them.
Natasha gives him a questioning look. “Then what are you doing here?”
Unpredictable, she thinks, is a good word to describe him. For the first time, she begins to consider that maybe he isn’t simply trying to throw her off-balance, maybe that part of this whole mystery isn’t intentional on his part at all. Maybe this is just his personality, and she’s the one who has yet to figure it out.
“Maybe I just wanted to spend time with you.” He reaches out, steals a crouton off her plate and eats it with a crunch.
Natasha roles her eyes at him. “Most people who touch my food don’t live to talk about it.”
He just laughs, and takes another crouton, chewing and swallowing before he speaks again. “I know you said that you don’t like compliments. I know that you said they’re dangerous, because they make you vulnerable. But you know what I think is more dangerous? The way that you think about yourself.”
“How’s that?” she asks, working to keep her tone neutral.
“Like you’re never enough,” says Barton, meeting her eyes. “Like it might get you killed if you ever started to think that maybe you are. Like letting someone see the good parts of you -- not just the deadly parts, or the smart ones -- but the good ones might be the biggest mistake you’ve ever made. Like you have to keep everyone convinced that you’re a monster in order to survive.”
Natasha blinks at him, her heart suddenly pounding in her throat. Her first instinct is to get angry, to feel betrayed, to accuse him of using her own techniques against her. But he’s right, she realizes. He’s right. He hasn’t manipulated her into any of this; he’s simply observed, and put the pieces together.
She can’t quite swallow the bitterness down, though, knows it’s showing in her tone when she finally responds. “So, what, you’re here to be the hero who saves me from myself?”
He shakes his head. “No. I might be kind of a dick, but I’m not arrogant enough to think I could do that. Or that you’d need me to.”
Natasha sighs, pushing her plate away and leaning back in her chair, trying to regulate her face and her breathing. “Then what?”
“I’m going to keep telling you the good things about yourself. I’m going to keep supporting you. Whether you want to accept it or not, I’m going to keep showing you that it isn’t dangerous. Not from me.”
“You’re wrong,” says Natasha. “You’re not a dick. You’re an idealist. That’s worse.”
“Congratulations!” she greets the class, giving them her brightest smile and watching as they shift uncomfortably, most of them sitting up straighter in their seats, but the few who still seem not-so-irrationally afraid of her leaning further back instead. “You’ve reached the week you’ve all been waiting for.”
She surveys them as she lets the suspense build for a moment, because she fully intends to enjoy today’s lesson. Nearly eight weeks have passed since the class started, which feels oddly surreal when she thinks about it. At the beginning, that time had seemed interminable, a futile waste of her energy, but in truth it’s flown by faster than she ever could have expected. The students in front of her are still far from masters of this particular craft, but she thinks she can see measurable progress, at least in a few of the skills she’s been trying to impart.
“Nobody wants to guess?” she asks, scanning the room again.
For once, Alex keeps his mouth shut, though his expression says everything she needs to know about how much he wants to comment. Maybe not completely hopeless, she decides. Just mostly hopeless.
Natasha rests a hand on her hip, lets her gaze wander for a moment to Barton, in his familiar back corner. He has his head down, eyes on the surface of his desk, but she doesn’t miss the unmistakable smirk on his face.
“Today,” says Natasha, “we’re talking about touch.” She holds up a hand as she watches the anticipation sweep silently over the room. “Don’t get too excited. You’re not going to practice groping one another.”
“Do we get to beat each other up instead?” asks Pat, and a few people laugh.
Natasha snorts, in spite of herself. “Sadly also no. Today we’re talking about the kind of touch that puts people at ease and draws them in. This goes hand in hand with the body language lesson, if you can remember back to a few weeks ago. So I’m going to have you pair up again, and you’re going to practice touching one another. Just little things, that might seem accidental or halfway intentional in conversation with a stranger you’ve just met. Sit side by side and brush their shoulder, or touch their arm as you reach for something. Don’t go too far. The goal here is to draw them in and make them want more of you, not to give so much that it becomes overbearing.”
She pauses for a moment, waiting for people to find their now-familiar partners.
“Okay, I’m giving you ten minutes to experiment, and then we’re going to discuss. Go ahead and begin.”
“I have a question.”
Barton meets her eyes in the locker room mirror, coming up to stand beside her as she’s combing out her wet hair. They’ve spent the past two hours training together in near-silence, focused to the point that it’s almost surprising to hear the sound of his voice now.
She glances sideways at him, can’t quite ignore the fact that he hasn’t bothered to put a shirt back on after his shower, or the fact that he’s currently using the mirror to shave before their afternoon briefing.
“Yes?” she prompts, wincing as her comb snags on the tangle of curls.
“The class you’re teaching,” he says, leaning closer to the mirror as he lathers shaving cream on his face. “Everyone is still thinking about it as Seduction 101, you know? Even though you haven’t said a single thing about romancing or seducing or sleeping with a mark.”
Natasha shrugs, setting down her comb and squeezing gel into her palm before running it through her hair, acutely aware of the way he’s watching her. “They’re not wrong, technically.”
“No?” He pauses, razor halfway to his face, which is probably fortunate for him.
She pulls her hair into sections, begins twirling the first one around a finger, aware of the way his gaze has gone straight to the motion, though he’s seen her do this at least a dozen times before. “The word ‘seduction’ is from the Latin, seducere, which means ‘to lead astray.’ Sex is only the modern interpretation of the concept, or maybe the most popular interpretation.”
He considers this for a moment, then nods before taking the first stroke of the razor in earnest. “So are you trying to subvert that expectation, or?”
Natasha shakes her head. “No. I just honestly don’t think teaching people to sleep with their marks is the most effective use of anyone’s time. It’s messy, it’s risky, and it’s usually not the best way to get the job done. Shockingly, it’s not even my go-to method. Although I certainly don’t mind people thinking that if it primes them to help me get into their heads.”
He’s quiet for a long moment, regarding her in the mirror. Natasha focuses intently on her hair, feeling strangely fragile under his gaze, as though he might be seeing things she hasn’t even realized for herself.
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” he says finally. “But you’re right. You’re right.” He laughs, softly, almost to himself. “Of course you’re right. That’s why you’re the teacher and we’re the students.”
“Final lesson,” says Natasha, scanning the room one last time.
She sees some changes, she thinks, though they’re all still a work in progress. She isn’t arrogant enough to believe that she’s done any more than begin to impart the basics to them, maybe given them a little more success than they would have found in the field in the past. Still, it’s a novel feeling, watching the skills she’s always viewed as her survival blossom in others, not fearing the idea that they might be passed on.
“Final lesson,” she repeats, “is actually a warning. Working a mark can be fun. All the skills I’ve taught you are intended to make sure the other person is enjoying the experience, and usually that means acting like you are, too. But remember that you have a job to do. You don’t get to have too much fun, or you’ll fail the mission. And you might be putting your life in danger on top of it. So keep your head on straight, and remember what you showed up to do.”
It isn’t the first time she’s been to his apartment, Barton being Barton. He’d brought her here scarcely a week after she was cleared to leave immediate S.H.I.E.L.D. premises, before they’d even taken the monitoring bracelet off her wrist, in one of his spectacularly unwise shows of trust.
He’s never taken her up to the rooftop before, though, so it’s a surprise when he veers off-course at the end of the hallway, heading toward the access stairs instead of the door to his home. He has a bag of Chinese takeout in one hand, a bottle of wine and a sleeve of plastic cups in the other.
“What are we doing?” she asks, as she follows him onto the stairs. “You said dinner.”
“Actually,” he corrects, as he holds the exit door open for her at the top, “I said ‘dinner and a celebration.’ This is the celebration part. Although, admittedly, also the dinner part.”
The rooftop of his building was clearly designed to be a lounge at one point, with a couple of grills and a fire pit in the middle, surrounded by a healthy wall that allows onlookers to enjoy the view without any fear of falling. The area is mostly defunct now, though, what looks to have once been a flower bed empty save for some weeds, and not a chair in sight. Instead, there’s a blanket spread in the middle, and Barton gestures to it grandly.
“Our table,” he says, in his best waiter voice.
Natasha gives him a skeptical look. “You’re weird, you know that?” She settles onto the blanket, though, and she can’t deny that it’s pleasant being outside, the noise of rush hour in the city sounding far off below them.
He grins and sits across from her, beginning to set out their spread of food and wine. “I know. I think you kinda like it.”
She rolls her eyes. “So. We’re celebrating?”
He nods sagely. “To the end of the most engaging, productive class I have ever had the honor of attending at S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Natasha glares, taking the wine bottle from him and stabbing it with the corkscrew for emphasis. “What have I taught you about flattery?”
Barton laughs, accepting a cup of wine from her and holding it up as if for a toast. “Okay. To Natasha Romanoff not murdering any of her students, even though some of them totally deserved it.”
She allows a small smile at that and taps her cup against his. “Acceptable.”
He downs the entire cup of wine in a single long swig, then holds it out for her to refill it. “Also, to Clint Barton proving her wrong.”
Natasha quirks an eyebrow. “And just how did you do that?”
He grins. “I didn’t try to sleep with you.”
“No,” she agrees, then considers the past few weeks, the past few months that she’s known him. His gentle, yet stubborn persistence in pushing her to be better, to be kinder to herself, to believe in his trust and partnership. His prowess in the field, and in the gym. His hopeless sense of humor, and his stupid arms.
“What?” he prompts, evidently aware of the fact that she’s suddenly gotten lost in her head.
Natasha shrugs, then tosses her head back and downs all of her wine as well. “You didn’t try to sleep with me, but what if I want you to?”
For a moment he just gapes at her, then takes back the bottle of wine and swigs straight from it before starting to laugh, breathlessly, almost convulsively, until she can see tears in his eyes.
“Hell yes,” he says, when he can finally speak again. “But you have to do something for me first.”
“What’s that?” she asks, reaching out to touch his cheek and feeling the way his entire body shudders.
“You have to start calling me by my first name,” he says, then leans in and kisses her before she can respond.